Korean Culture Today
There have been a lot of issues in recent years when quite a few Korean idol singers demonstrated their ignorance of Korean history on TV shows and they were severely criticized and forced to apologize in public for their ignorance.
However, this was not just their problem but rather it is the problem of the Korean society and the younger generation that we are ignorant of our own cultural essence and its history that shaped who we are and how we can derive from them to establish our own identity.
Quite a few young Korean people are ignorant of their history even though they would be taught in school curriculum. Although I grew up in South Korea until middle school and took history classes to learn Korean history, I was forced to memorize dates of certain events including the Imjin War and National Liberation Day that were crucial in Korean history and figures like King Sejong and Admiral Lee Sun Sin who have accomplished great achievements in the past.
Nevertheless, I would not have been able to fully understand how some of these events are connected to each other and are somehow repeating their patterns to represent the national characteristics of Korean people. From taking the lectures on Korea culture and history behind it, however, I came to really appreciate Korean culture by comprehending the repressive social atmosphere of Choson society with Confucianism and the persistence of the cultures that survived the strict Confucian norms that restricted the expression of emotions in public.
In addition to that, understanding the recursive patterns of repression throughout Korean society including the Park Jung Hee administration, has taught me the struggles my ancestors have persevered and the foundation of democracy in Korean society that is established through numerous generations with countless sacrifices.
Koreans have enriched their culture through various forms in the Confucian society where the expression of individuals was repressed in public and overcome the limitation of their presence that was imposed by the language with emergence of Korean script that eventually prospered these cultures of the middle and the lower class people to enlighten the Korean society.
Confucianism has been deeply placed in Korean society since the Choson era even until today and had enormous influence on how people think and behave. Along with the Confucian norms that applied throughout the society, language was a significant instrument that separated the elite class and the commoners. Such circumstances had repressed the expression of the lower class people and this had direct influence on their social presence during the Choson era in which “those who could successfully cultivate their sentiments and express them in an appropriate manner dominated politics and took the superior position in sociocultural realms”. As described
in the reading of Feeling Power in Early Choson by Cho, expression of one’s emotions to cultivate one's own sentiments was highly regarded in Korean society and yet the middle and the lower class people had to restrain themselves from expressing their emotions in public even though they had no other places to express them. However, the middle and the lower class had maintained and practiced their own cultures to express their feelings and emotions through various forms while they were not generally accepted in the society to some extent where the people who used Korean vernacular were punished under the strict petition system of Choson society.
Although I did write about the national characteristic of Korean people, I did not mention the dominating character that represents the Korean people, which is perseverance and endurance. In fact, these middle and lower class people could have been discouraged in maintaining their social presence and their cultures might have vanished away. Nevertheless, the social atmosphere that alienated the freedom of expression of the middle and the lower class people could not stop them from forming their cultures within the groups.
For instance, pansori is one of the famous cultural forms that we discussed in class, which originated from the lower class to lament their sad reality at the injustices and sorrows that come from the hereditary social hierarchy in a musical form and later adopted by the elite class and it still exists today as one of the highly regarded cultural forms of the Korean people that expresses their grievances and emotions. This demonstrates how much Korean people valued the cultivation of sentiments since the Choson era and I came to really understand the importance of expression of feelings and emotions and the cultural aspect in Korean society.
Furthermore, the absence of literary script amongst the middle and the lower class was a great limitation that repressed their freedom of expression. As described in the reading by Cho, “their public expression of personal distress lowered them culturally by laying bare their raw feelings” (Cho 8).
However, along with the persistence of national characteristic of Korean people, these cultures of the middle and the lower class eventually prospered with the emergence of Korean script that has contributed to the cultural flourishment by extending their cultural domain into the written forms including sijo and novels that could be socially accepted under the Confucian norms. If there is one element that I forgot to write about in my discussion to introduce my knowledge of Korea, it would be Hangul. And in fact, Hangul has created numerous opportunities for the commoners to express themselves and their ideas through various platforms and enabled them to cultivate their sentiments and to dream of utopian society.
Koreans have formed solidarity throughout the recursive history of repression to raise their voices and to define their own meaning of democracy. In fact, learning about how much Confucian norms had repressed the commoners and the females and how Korean citizens suffered under Japanese Colonization has changed my perspective to look at Korean history. The recursive patterns throughout the past generations, however, has also inculcated the dominant class to control the society with repression and dictatorship, which Park Jung Hee incorporated into his administration as well. As his military dictatorship during his presidency restricted its own citizens, Koreans have repeatedly lived under repressive society. Nevertheless, despite their yearning for liberation and democracy to preserve their social presence and exercise political power, the Koreans had never really trained themselves to establish their independence as a nation until the late 20th century. In fact, as described in the article of Park Chung-hee, The Country, the Revolution, and I, ““ours,” and “things of Korea” began to gradually disappear. Instead, “American things,” “Western things,” and “Japanese things” began to appear” (Hollym 57). Their identities were easily threatened because of their indistinct definition of Koreannes. In my discussion post at the beginning of the semester, I introduced Korea as a country that
accomplished independence from the Japanese Colonization. However, I never really understood the environment in which they struggled after independence with the colonial modernity that we discussed in class. When I learned about the historical figures from this time period like Yun Tong Ju the poet, the emphasis was on their philosophical thinking and resolute determination to accomplish their independence from Japan. Nevertheless, the post colonial era was one of the biggest challenges that Koreans had to face to determine their future as a nation. Because of how Koreans never gave up seeking for their liberation and the challenges they overcame to define the meaning of Koreannes, I came to really appreciate what they have accomplished today with democracy in Korean society. From these recursive patterns of their history, Korean people taught themselves how to unite themselves as I talked about how they are well organized and how much voice they can raise when united. It shows the Korean society in which the impeachment of President Park was a huge issue all around the world in 2018 and demonstrated the triumph of democracy and the citizens in South Korea.
Korean cultures have expanded throughout both domestically and internationally while focusing on the cultures of the middle and the lower class people and established their indomitable presence across various forms of culture despite the repression by the dominant class of Korean society. During the Choson era, it was essential for people to cultivate their sentiments and express their emotions and feelings in an appropriate way, which had to be restrained in written forms because expressing their emotions in public was regarded as a disgraceful behavior under the Confucian norms. Nevertheless, as I described in my discussion post, the national characteristics of Koreans are energetic and enthusiastic, which I believe is very interesting since they contradict the social atmospheres that Koreans have been through over the last decades. These cultures and the national characteristic they have developed,
however, they came from their history and from ordinary people and now they are more widely appreciated for their unique way of expressing their feelings and emotions. As described in the reading of A History of Korea, “many upstanding people have lived in our country, which stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions. How can it be, then, that we know about only a few of these people whose stories deserve to be passed down through our words and literature?” (Hwang 94). As I have quoted in my presentation to talk about the first Korean novels and how Korean culture has flourished with the emergence of Korean script, it is the story of ordinary people that represents the Korean culture. The reason why I mentioned the national characteristic of the Koreans is that I have always wanted to share with the people outside of Korea that Koreans are very energetic and they tend to bond together strongly whenever they experience hardships or any kind of crises.
Understanding Korean history and the literature helped me grasp the essence behind the Korean culture to really appreciate how Koreans have developed their own cultures under repressions and severe circumstances. Even though there were numerous threats by foreign countries to disdain their national identities even before they were firmly established, as we discussed in the beginning of the semester, Koreans have adopted these foreign cultures and developed them into their own culture including Buddhism. And I would like to introduce one of the quotes by the famous Korean statesman politician, Baekbeom Kim Gu:
“I do not want my country to be an imitation of others, but a source of a new and noble culture, a role model and aspiration for the world. I pray that true world peace can be established in my homeland, and spread from my homeland to the world. I believe this is what is the essence of the Dangun legend and the philosophy of Hongik Ingan.”
Koreans were inevitably overpowered by many different countries and they naturally adopted their cultures as well. For instance, Buddhism is one of the most important cultural aspects of Korea as it was highly regarded by the ruling class to bring prosperity to the nation. Even though Buddhism originally started from China and India, Korean people successfully adopted this ideology and incorporated it into their society. In fact, there are many other areas where Koreans are influenced by foregin countries as we have discussed from the beginning of the semester.
Although we did learn about what is Dangun legend during the lecture, the philosophy of Hongik Ingan refers to the benefit of all mankind and the ancient Korean philosophy suggests that Koreans are meant to live for the benefit of all mankind. It is very important to note that Hongik Ingan is the foundation of the country that links the Korean people to their essence and how they developed their cultures.
“I want our nation to become the most beautiful nation in the world. I do not want our nation to become the richest and the most powerful nation in the world. Because I have left the pain of being invaded by another nation, I do not want my nation to invade others. It is sufficient that our wealth is such that it makes our lives abundant and our military strength such that it is able to repel others’ invasion. The only thing that I desire in infinite quantity is the power of a highly-developed culture. This is because the power of culture both makes ourselves happy and gives happiness to others.”
As we could infer from Yun Tong Ju’s poetries, many Koreans still have the pain that is left from the colonization and the military dictatorship that sacrificed the numerous lives of the Korean people. Even though I never experienced such painful feelings of losing my country and repression throughout my life, there is this painful emotion that is deeply inculcated in my heart and now I am finally connected to these cultural essence to what we have arrived as a nation in the 21st century after I understood the history behind the culture.
Korean Culture Today Written by Phillip Kim
1. Cho, Hwisang. “Feeling Power in Early Chosŏn Korea: Popular Grievances, Royal Rage, and the Problem of Human Sentiments.” Journal of Korean Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, 2015, pp. 7–32.
2. Hwang, Kyung Moon. A History of Korea: an Episodic Narrative. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
3. “Kim Gu's Dream of One Korea.” Hyun Jin Preston Moon, 30 Aug. 2018, www.hyunjinmoon.com/kim-gus-dream-one-korea-2/.
4. “Kim Gu, Korea's Champion.” Koreabridge,
koreabridge.net/post/kim-gu-korea%E2%80%99s-champion-baltimoron. 5. Park Chung-hee, The Country, the Revolution, and I (Seoul: Hollym Corporation Publishers, 1963)